If I were Labour’s campaign strategist

Written By: - Date published: 2:49 pm, April 4th, 2008 - 17 comments
Categories: election 2008, labour - Tags: ,

Part three of the ‘If I were [Party X]’s campaign strategist’ series brings us to Labour.

The strategy for a major party is very different from that of a smaller party. Rather than trying to grab attention public attention and target niche concerns, a major party needs a broad-based platform that will appeal to most of New Zealand society, while containing unique elements that make it more attractive than its counterpart. For a centre-left party like Labour, the choice is on which issues to go left and when to stick more closely to the centre.

The problem with playing for the centre is that this is the realm of image politics, rather than substance. The policy differences between the parties are so small that the politics becomes a rhetoric/popularity contest and Labour’s competition, National, has style over substance in spades in John Key. No, Labour must find areas in which it can create a distinctive difference with National: these must be issues on which voters will agree with Labour policy and are sufficiently left-wing that Key cannot follow. To use a boxing analogy, National’s tactic is to stick close to Labour, holding Labour’s arms in and making little jabs; Labour needs to back away to free its arms.

Labour has already hit on issues where it can do this successfully. The first is assets. Labour is set to block the sale of Auckland Airport into foreign ownership and to buy back the railways from foreign owners that have abused it. The public reaction to seeing strategic assets kept in New Zealand hands has been very positive; people do not like seeing infrastructure we rely on being asset-stripped and billions in profits generated in this country flowing overseas. National has floundered on the issue. And well they might, National is the free market party; keeping important assets in New Zealand ownership is totally contrary to their core beliefs. Labour must look to build on the assets theme with policy to return more important assets to New Zealand control and reduce the flow of profits offshore.

The second is wages and work rights. Again, National can’t follow Labour left: Key is on record saying “we would love to see wages drop“, National consistently votes against improved work rights (most recently the meal break legislation), and National’s one piece of workrights and wages legislation is the 90-Day Bill to remove employees’ rights when they start a new job. Labour can lead here by promising to lift the minimum wage to $15 by 2011, by introducing Multi-Employer Collective Agreements to strengthen workers’ bargaining power, and promising a timeline to five weeks’ annual leave in line with most developed countries. Let National oppose those policies and remind everyone what Key really thinks should happen to wages.

On tax cuts, kneecap National. There is a principled case for general tax cuts, inflation raises the portion of tax paid in real terms and not all people get relief through Working for Families and other tax breaks. So, make the cuts, make them quick, the bulk coming in on October 1, make them a decent size, and make them apply to everyone. For example, cut GST to 10% starting with a 1% cut on Oct 1 and 0.5% annual cuts thereafter (that’s what the Conservatives in Canada did and it was popular, it’s also disinflationary) and introduce a tax-free bracket starting at, say $5000 on October 1, and rising to $10,000. Put the money up-front and force National to adopt the program.

In inter-party relations, keep options open but face the fact that the Maori Party is likely to win most or all of the Maori seats and is likely to be Kingmaker. Maori voters prefer Labour to National but the bad blood between the Maori Party and Labour must be put aside.

Finally, get out the vote. It remains as true as ever that the Right has the money and the Left has the people. All the evidence is that most of the enrolled non-vote are working-class who would otherwise vote Labour. Get them to excerise their democratic rights and the underlying Left majority will be revealed. How to do that? Listen to them, design policy for their needs, and make sure campaign materials speak to them.

17 comments on “If I were Labour’s campaign strategist”

  1. mike 1

    Great Steve, I can’t wait to see if you retain your impartiality when it comes to Nationals strategy..

  2. Steve Pierson 2

    I’ll try my best… my initial thoughts are that National is in a far tougher position when it comes to winning on policy – hence the policy-free National that we see

  3. mike 3

    well thats a good start steve

  4. higherstandard 4


    I think the tax cuts would have worked better for Labour if they had been introduced some time ago and then ramped up for the elction – the population (and the current opposition) will ask why the country has had to wait until 1 month prior to the election.

    Athough who knows judging on the polls in the Herald regarding Peter Brown’s comments one has to wonder about this country at times.

  5. BeShakey 5

    Surely at least as tough to remain impartial when considering ACT, but I thought the advice provided was pretty sound.

    I think Labour has already begun to achieve one of the key tactical parts of the campaign. They were severely hamstrung by Nationals success despite having a lack of policy. It allowed National to criticise anything where they thought they could gain traction, without facing the same fate themselves. Labour has now managed to paint National as a party that is ‘slippery’ on what their actual policies are, and that has a number of members that don’t actually believe in the policies. That leads on to the issue of whether National can be trusted to implement the policies they are running on.

    But Labour needs to run a positive campaign as well. Previous election policies that have been successful have been tied to a concrete outcome that people can appreciate (20 hours free ECE wouldn’t have been as successful if it was simply a policy to put the same amount of $ into ECE simply to ‘improve it’). Its tought to come up with something that is fresh and will capture hearts and minds, but thats the challence.

  6. Matthew Pilott 6

    I thought Steve was impartial enough with his take on ACT (http://www.thestandard.org.nz/?p=14360 ) – I somehow he’s a ‘two ticks ACT’ kinda guy.

  7. Ari 7

    I disagree that Labour needs to give tax cuts to “everyone”. Rather, they need to give tax cuts that cater to the “middle-class” workers in our economy, who have been feeling overtaxed and left out from Working For Families. This is the group that is swinging for National because of its criticism of high food and petrol prices. (never mind the fact that National can’t do anything to change that)

  8. I think this is a pretty good analysis. Although, like Ari, I think Labour’s tax cuts need to be targetted at low-middle income people. Make taxes even more progressive while delivering to a large proportion of the swing-voters. And I think there are several other policy areas where Labour can go that National can’t. The power-generation sector, for example, seems like an obvious one. National’s reforms in the 1990s were the equivilent of scambling eggs, and how to you unscramble eggs? Over the past 8 years we havn’t – we’ve tinkered. I think some bold moves could be very popular (and also makes sense in terms of sustainability/climate change policy delivery).

  9. Steve Pierson 9

    Both a GST cut and a tax-free braket would benefit low income earners the most as a percentage of their gross income.

    I agree about electricity.

  10. Steve Pierson 10

    higherstandard. I agree that politically tax cuts would have worked better had they been introduced earlier.

  11. randal 11

    Labours campaign strategy is steady as she goes. the Nats have been acting like they have it in the bag but the electorate in general is not going to throw everything away for an unknown quantity and the febrile politics of pandering to the electorate by offering unknown policies. Security is the name of the game and all National can promise is the same old slogans of choice and the vacuous market which is no substitute for what we have already. Hair splitting over tax rates and the rest is just so much gum flapping and everybody knows National has only got false teeth!

  12. Hillary 12

    I would like to see Labour come out with some bold policies around housing affordability. They have so far put housing affordability on the agenda but nothing that immediately captures the imagination. This is a policy area that is important to the punters.

  13. National consistently votes against improved work rights (most recently the meal break legislation)

    While National does consistently vote against any improvement in worker’s rights, they haven’t voted against guaranteed meal breaks yet. It’s still below the line.

    So, wait until next week before claiming that.

  14. Steve Pierson 14

    Hillary. yeah housing affordability is an issue but how is Laobur going to tackle it without undermining house prices further (not popular)? They should be looking to reform the laws, especially around capital gains for the start of the next upturn to prevent another boom in the housing market but not now while prices are unsteady.

    I would be a little hesitant about calling voters punters – a bit too mcuh like Brash’s ‘punters out in punterland’

    I/S. As usual, you’re quite right. The meal breaks legislation is still on its first reading. But National does oppose it.

    captcha: ‘yesterday’s prose’. telling yesterday’s stories?

  15. Gobbler 15

    Great comments Steve;

    Although I do disagree with:

    “buy back the railways from foreign owners that have abused it”

    Unfortunately it was when the railways were under the guise of Tranzrail when they were abused which was at the hands of Michael Fay and David Richwhite….Aucklanders born and bred!

    As for taxcuts ignoring the top tax rate of $60,000 (from other comments) – this is pretty shortsighted as like I have said before $60,000 NZD isn’t a lot of money anymore and those people aren’t ‘rich’ or ‘wealthy’ by any stretch of the imagination…

  16. Shane 16

    I read the Standard a lot but rarely post. I’m an EPMU delegate. I would add a crackdown on freeloading to the list of what Labour could do to lead. I’m sure that many are aware that in so many workplaces where there is a collective, the union-negotiated terms and conditions get passed on to non-union members. They (non-union) don’t have to ask, they don’t have to do anything, and they are rewarded.

    If they don’t want to join a union, fine. I’m personally not in favour of compulsory union membership. I think it’s better to only have people there who want to be there. But if they aren’t interested in joining, they should have to negotiate their own terms and conditions when beginning employment, and for any subsequent pay rise and anything else they might want. In many workplaces there are no genuine individual negotiations.

    One way to reduce the freeloading problem might be to amend the ERA, to remove `intention’ as a test for breach of good faith. This would leave `effect’. Andrew Little, when asked how to tackle this problem, suggested gradually changing peoples perceptions and make freeloading immoral. But that won’t work in the current environment unless the workplace you’re in already has a high union density.

    I’m in favour of the minimum wage rising to $15. One of the arguments for this is that the minimum wage be set at two thirds of the average wage. But if the minimum wage makes it to $15 in 2011, what will two thirds of the average wage be then? There will probably always be a time lag of several years between the time a two-thirds figure is identified and when the minimum wage actually reaches that figure. I’m not sure if any parties have the specific policy of making the minimum wage two thirds of the average wage. Perhaps this is what Labour should do, rather than settling on a specific figure and aiming to that.

  17. AncientGeek 17

    SP: I think that I’d prefer to have income tax brackets moving with inflation rather than changing the GST rate. Start with the lowest brackets by all means, but put a process in place to ensure that fiscal drag is reduced.

    The real problem with the tax system is that the levels have to be manually changed. Culmulative inflation and wage growth just turns that into fiscal drag. Effectively this means that someone on a low income is paying an increasing amount of money in tax as they move from the bottom tax bracket into a higher one. I can’t remember the last time that the bottom bracket was adjusted.

    The usual reason to target GST is because it helps unwaged. But that should be dealt with by direct changes to benefits. GST is quite a good system simply because it is on a straight percentage. It is the tax system I’d dick about with last.

    The other tax system that should be looked at is the archane structure of the provisional tax system. This system is well past its death date. It belongs back in the 19th century.

    This is a system that requires you to estimate how much profit you will make at the start of the financial year. Then it penalizes you if you mis-estimate. The only apparent reason for this is to make it easy for treasury to estimate business taxes.

    This may have been acceptable in a slow paced economy. But these days it is hard to predict what is happening next month, and particularly in the types of niche export businesses that we want to foster here. The provisional tax system is very hard for them during the startup phase.

    My last contact with the vagaries of the provisional tax system were a while back. But I gather it is still the same – one of the strongest disincentives to start a company.

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